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The Sparkman response:'The business' of newspapers

John and I agree that the newspaper business is in trouble. From that point on, we disagree on the cause, the implications, and the solution. I believe that John’s attitude produces no discernible action steps, and represents little more than complaining about the problem

On the specific points in the exchange posted on GTN:

The newspaper business

If I were a newspaper executive, I would have trouble sleeping because of the problems I see in the business. There are many scary indicators, and nothing positive to speak of. The thrust of my original article was to note that the magnitude of these problems demands that management completely re-examine their traditional definition of “the business” and develop a new strategy to deal with these changes.

Dr. McManus agrees that newspapers are “a business.” But, then he quickly invents reasons to excuse newspapers from worrying about normal business pressures. By his analysis, the issue is quite simple. Somehow the newspaper industry ownership has become populated with excessively greedy investors who are placing unreasonable demands on the enterprise. John seems to demand that this excessive greed be tempered in some unspecified way. To him, this is not a business problem. It is a human problem caused by greedy investors. There is nothing wrong with the product. It is the system that’s at fault. Will that solve anything? Not on your life. It is an excuse to do nothing.

Dr. McManus sees the issue in a 1776 time frame

John quotes several founding fathers on just how essential newspapers are to the functioning of our society. These quotes were made when newspapers were the only source of news. It is the provision of news to the public that is critical to our society. Nowadays that news is available from many sources. Through changes in technology and customer preference, newspapers have lost their monopoly right to supply that news. Journalists must learn that the customer may opt for a different news source. They must learn to produce a product that competes for the customer’s attention, just like any other business product on the market. Why is that such a difficult concept to grasp?

The Titanic

Dr. McManus asked. “Was the spotter on the bridge of the Titanic "whining" when he warned of an iceberg?” The Titanic is a great example. For all the reason outlined above, the newspaper business is in trouble Yet, the only business action we have seen is a relatively modest amount of cost cutting with little strategic re-evaluation by management.

Therefore, newspapers are in the same position as the Titanic. Spotters (business people and investors) are screaming that newspapers are heading for an iceberg. Meanwhile, those on the bridge piloting the ship (journalists and promoted journalists called editors) say, “No, that’s not an iceberg at all. We simply need to steer clear of greedy investors.” Of course, that is a childish and ludicrous reaction. The investors do, in fact, own the newspapers and will have the final say.

The political slant of the S.F. Chronicle

It is stunning to read that Dr. McManus believes there is no political bias in the Chron product. To believe that the Chron is not biased is equivalent to saying that Pelosi, Boxer, Code Pink, Mayor Newsom, and the S.F. Board of Supervisors represent the mainstream of American political thought.

Dr. M. describes the Chron output as “socially responsible journalism.” I call it “advocacy journalism” because the Chron material is virtually identical to the talking points of the Democrats. Only MoveOn.org would describe Chron journalism as “socially responsible.”

Back to the business issue, some of us feel that the decline of the U.S. media, including newspapers, is at least partially due to a loss of credibility. The bias that Dr. M. fails to see is easily seen by others who then seek other sources for their news. Conservatives ask why should they read the Chron and have their point of view verbally assaulted every day. They can get their news in other places, and they do. Meanwhile, the readership declines.

Restating the obvious, a business person cannot understand why, in the face of declining readership, the Chron chooses to limit the appeal of its product to the segment of readers who share the editor’s ideology. At the Chron, ideology trumps business logic.

Journalists as employees

My, what a depressing view Dr. McManus has of the journalist’s role in the business world. He argues that they are simply employees that do what they are told or they are fired. They are underpaid and totally non-professional. If the Doctor is correct in this somber assessment, then he and the journalists are totally disconnected from concern for the success of the business. I know of no one who successfully manages their business today with this medieval view of the role of the contribution of employees to success of the business.

Journalists as business people

I assume John’s attitude is reflective of what they teach in journalism school. They turn out graduates who have an inflated sense of their importance to society. This causes them to believe that they are insulated from business pressures. These same journalists then get promoted to editor positions from which they “manage” the business. The process does not seem to develop professional management expertise.

They are managing today as they did when they had a monopoly on presentation of the news. They see Pulitzer prizes as the proper gage of success instead of increased readership and profitability.

And, therefore

I do not believe that newspapers will disappear. I believe that someone in the industry will finally wake up and develop a new definition of “the business” and a new strategic thrust by capitalizing on their big reader base and their Internet sites. First, management must accept that their competitive world has changed. Then, they must ask what should be done to survive in this new environment. I think it will finally occur, but it looks like there will be a lot of pain and suffering before the awakening. However, none of that will occur by following Dr. McManus’ line of reasoning.


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Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle


San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)


Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

Site highlights


The three-part series follows the rise of three Bay Area handouts:
• Part 1: At free dailies, advertisers sometimes call the shots
• Part 2: Free daily papers: more local but often superficial
• Part 3: Free papers' growth threatens traditional news
• See also: SF Examiner and Independent agree to end payola restaurant reviews
• And: The free tabloid that wasn't: East Bay's aborted Daily Flash


Lou Alexander started a firestorm with his original guest commentary predicting the company would be sold. Several other experts on newspapers have weighed in:
Newspapers can't cut their way back into Wall Street investors' hearts, by Stephen R. Lacy; Alexander responds
Humbler profits won't encourage buyouts, by John Morton; Alexander responds
Newspapers can't maintain monopoly profits because they've lost their monopolies, by Philip Meyer
Knight Ridder in grave jeopardy, by Lou Alexander...


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Unintended consequences: How Craigslist and similar services are sucking revenue from faltering newspapers. 9/13/05
Is CPB irrelevant? As Congress moves to cut public broadcasting funds, has CPB become obsolete in the modern marketplace. 6/26/05
The paradox of news: There's more news available and its cheaper than ever before, but fewer young people are interested. 5/12/05


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